Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
New York, New York
May 19, 2023
@giselle (New York premiere)
As much as I’ve appreciated Joshua Beamish’s choreography, this one, I thought, would be a loser. I squeezed this performance, the second of a two-night run at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater, into my schedule because I attended the pre-Covid preview and decided I might as well close the loop. Although my reaction to the preview was relatively positive, at that time critical technical components were missing which, I indicated in my report of that preview, could have sunk the whole thing.
They didn’t. As I’ve observed many times before, it feels so good to be so wrong.
On every level, Beamish’s @giselle is an audacious and remarkably intelligent retelling of Giselle, that most iconic of Romantic classical ballets. Although I have a few concerns that I’ll address during the course of this review (particularly with respect to Act II), overall everything as presented works: the concept and the technical accomplishments that deliver it, the choreography that’s finely-tuned and unexpectedly unobtrusive, and the exceptional cast (including but not limited to American Ballet Theatre Soloist Betsy McBride as Giselle, and National Ballet of Canada Principal Harrison James as Loys/ Albrecht) who, collectively, made the whole package credible. [At the time of its 2019 preview, @giselle had already been in development for more than three years. It evolved out of a project, titled “Reimagining Giselle,” that Beamish had worked on with The Royal Ballet and its Director Kevin O’Hare. I don’t know whether the form presented here differs in any way from its pre-Covid formal premiere in Vancouver, B.C.]
One thing should be made clear from the outset: @giselle is not one of many revisionist Giselles that challenge the ballet’s premise that love forgives and endures beyond death, that consider Giselle a gullible naif and Albrecht as deserving no one’s sympathy, especially Giselle’s, and/ or that the Wilis’ pursuit of revenge is justifiable not just as to Albrecht but to any male they can catch. Rather, Beamish’s version, as he takes pains to explain in the program, is not intended to change or replace the traditional Giselle, but to complement it and update it. That he does. With one exception (Albrecht’s remorse toward, and seeking forgiveness from, Bathilde, a change to the original that I’ve seen before), most everything that’s in the original is here, but presented in a strangely contemporary way. Even the choreography incorporates much of the original choreography, interweaving it seamlessly with Beamish’s contemporary movement – and at times melding the two styles within one sequence in a way that makes sense. [For example, Giselle’s famous Act I “hops en pointe” diagonal is retained, but what she does with her free leg is from a different choreographic century.]
I’m sure there must be others, but the only version of Giselle I’ve seen that’s relatively comparable to this one in audacity and execution is Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet, but any attempt to equate that production to @giselle is like comparing an elephant to a chipmunk, particularly with respect to the production values of each. Khan’s Giselle is visually overwhelming, with a set that enhances but also dominates the presentation. Beamish’s @giselle does the same, but on a much lower decibel level, and it feels as comfortable as a broken-in pair of jeans. Similarly, while Khan’s Giselle emphasizes contemporary relevancy with a decidedly political emphasis, Beamish’s @giselle claims the same kind of contemporary relevance, but here it’s muted in comparison.
In @giselle there’s no set. Instead, there’s a front scrim (and occasionally what appears to be an upstage scrim as well) on which projections are displayed during the course of the piece. At times the projections span the scrim, but most of the time they occupy a fraction of the stage/air space, perhaps with two (or occasionally more) projections at once. Notwithstanding the projections (on the contrary, enhanced by them), the audience is still able to see the live action behind the scrim. Consequently, the live action echoes and mirrors what’s presented via the projection (and vice versa), thereby magnifying the impact of both – including moments when the projected image is choreography that replicates the stage action. There’s nothing necessarily new about this – projections that replicate live action are not uncommon. What is uncommon is that here it comes across as a natural consequence of the overall updating rather than as the particular dance’s raison d’etre.
And like everything else about @giselle, the projections are integrated into the action seamlessly. Indeed, Beamish and his creative associates make the projections indispensable components of the theatrical presentation. Most often, in addition to moving the plot forward within the updated concept, they’re funny – as in the visualization of Loys’s ardent and persistent pursuit of Giselle as lightly salacious but effectively direct messages and sexting images (relatively tame, but still comic in context). But sometimes they’re flat-out brilliant: during Giselle’s livestreamed mad scene, for example, the number of viewers goes viral, and little by little individual viewers’ photos are added to the scrim/ screen, as in a Zoom call, with these photo images eventually occupying the entire stage-spanning space, in the process both replicating the “villagers” who surround Giselle in her increasing madness in original presentations, and updating it in a way that makes the same (or an even greater) impact. After all, it takes a village – and whether the “village” is a “real” imagined village or a virtual one that’s a consequence of a multi-faceted platform (conveniently titled “The Village”) doesn’t really matter.
For his musical accompaniment, Beamish uses the original score as recorded by the London Festival Ballet Orchestra. Some segments are shuffled to different places or broken up and assigned to different dancers (as in the Peasant Pas). A deep dig into the program reveals that some additional unidentified music by Friedrich Burgmuller, Ludwig Minkus, and Cesare Pugi, but much of this was added to accompany various choreographic additions and have long been part of what’s considered the original score – although there was one musical segment, in Act II, that I don’t recall ever previously hearing. Regardless, the novelty of hearing the original music and seeing a context and choreography that so differs from the original is never jarring: somehow, it all fits together.
As the overture begins, Giselle is seen on a projected cell phone screen pruning. She soon connects with a stranger named “Loys,” here clearly portrayed as a conceited cad out to make another conquest, who pursues Giselle by text messages that lead to a meeting, and which thereafter continue through more, and increasingly intimate, messages. These characters are thoroughly modern – the seemingly good-natured courting in the original is replaced here by more raunchy thoughts and actions.
A local “son of a family friend,” Hilarion (played by Philadelphia Ballet Principal Sterling Baca), who is infatuated with Giselle, repeatedly tries to interrupt the couple’s budding connection, but instead of receiving the original Giselle’s gentle rejection, this Giselle is far more forceful, effectively shutting an invisible door in his face as she mimes to Albrecht /Loys that Hilarion is crazy.
But Hilarion suspects that something’s amok, and searches The Village platform and finds that a profile for a popular Village member Albrecht appears identical to a profile for Loys. Meanwhile, Giselle’s single mother, Berthe, (portrayed by Beverly Bagg, a former dancer with Ballet Frankfurt and PACT Ballet Johannesburg who now teaches in and around Vancouver), who prefers Hilarion as a partner for her daughter, takes Giselle to a well-known “social encourager,” Bathilde (ABT’s Fangqi Li) to teach her the ins and outs of navigating social media. [This is one of the few plot revisions that makes little sense. By the time of this introduction, Giselle, though maybe socially unsophisticated, clearly is adept at using social media in general and The Village platform in particular. But, I suppose, some plot device that connects Giselle with Bathilde is necessary, since Bathilde and her father and his entourage stopping by for refreshment while on a hunt isn’t an available option.] Bathilde and Giselle hit it off. Giselle admires Bathilde’s dress, Bathilde gives Giselle a pendant, and Giselle notices Bathilde’s oversized engagement ring, which leads to each describing their absent fiancés (cleverly accompanied by bits and pieces of screen drawings), and soon realize that the two may be the same person. Hilarion, who appears with his findings, confirms it.
In disbelief, Giselle tries to contact Albrecht/ Loys, but though he reads her message (reflected in a “read” indication on her screen), he doesn’t respond. She waits, increasingly despondent as the hours go by (reflected by the time passing on her projected screen each time she checks to see if he’s responded), eventually losing control, losing her mind, and dying of SADS (Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome), all during her livestream transmission – which is also watched by Albrecht and Hilarion, each shocked and seemingly grief-stricken.
So far, so good.
The updates to @giselle’s Act II are tougher to accept than Act I; they work in spite of, rather than because of, the leaps of logic that the program note would require, and because the foundations are sufficiently established in Act I. Instead of a blow-by-blow, I’ll focus my comments on what the program says was intended and what was displayed.
Essentially, Beamish had to recreate Myrta and the Wilis without placing them in their original context. So he concocted a mechanism – “The Forest Experiential Lounge” – through which the plot and its connection to the original proceeds. By itself, this isn’t a problem. How Albrecht and Hilarion (and presumably others) get there, and what happens after, is. Myrtha and her associates Moyna and Zulma are presented as seducers rather than as dead victims of a man’s duplicity, and the Wilis are imagined tormentors who Hilarion and then Albrecht separately concoct within a drug and guilt-induced fantasy.
Fortunately, as staged, the scenes are far superior to their description, and the dividing line between the “Lounge” owner and associates and the Wilis who Hilarion and Albrecht supposedly imagine is, essentially, non-existent. What the audience really sees is indeed Myrtha, Moyna, and Zulma’s seduction, which the audience has to accept as a necessary plot device, and then a very real-looking encounter between Hilarion and Albrecht and the Wilis. Seen this way, Act II makes something resembling updated sense, and, more importantly, is beautifully presented (on stage) and executed.
These Wilis don’t appear any more imaginary than they do in the original (where, as the piece ends, Albrecht can be seen as wondering whether he’d imagined the whole thing). On the contrary, the Act II concept (except for the “seduction” issue), as executed, is another example of the brilliance at work here. When the “contemporary” Wilis dance, they’re “trailed” (or “illuminated”) by projections of ghosts of the original Wilis. The impact of this alone is quite extraordinary, but there’s more. When Giselle the Ghost appears, she’s first seen as what she is – a ghost. But this ghost doesn’t pretend to disappear when Albrecht reaches out to her – she dissolves into shattered pixels, invoking multiple explanations, the least significant of which is that this is somehow Albrecht’s imagination being reduced to the pixels in a social media post. Rather, the images are far more appropriate as representations of visible invisibility, and also as invoking the memory of Giselle having been shattered at the end of Act I.
And there’s more. Myrtha and her associates may be seductresses to entrap men. But in context, when the real action takes place, Myrtha and her associates are as stoney and unsympathetic as those in the original. Indeed, they’re more so. Myrtha doesn’t just command Albrecht to dance, she’s directly involved. In one of the most remarkable scenes in the ballet, during Albrecht’s Act II solo as the piece approaches its end (described in more detail below), it’s Myrtha who is the instrument that directly attempts to kill him.
So notwithstanding the program’s apparent shift in emphasis, the only “real” change presented in Act II is Albrecht’s concluding mea culpa to Bathilde.
As perhaps I’ve made all too clear, I don’t like the apparent trend now to have Albrecht, after surviving the Wilis efforts, apologize to and reconcile with Bathilde. At the least, this changes the focus from Albrecht’s remorse and Giselle’s forgiveness to Albrecht’s remorse and Bathilde’s forgiveness. The sense that love survives and overcomes, even in death, and the catharsis that goes with it (the original Giselle draws tears for a reason), disappears. And Bathilde here becomes an object of sympathy rather than derision. In the original, she’s daddy’s spoiled brat who Albrecht is obligated to marry and, the audience finds, doesn’t really love. Whatever his initial motive may have been, in the end he loved Giselle. Here, although the nobility issue is gone, Bathilde is still a social media privileged entity; she can get anyone she wants, so why be sorry for her? [I understand that an appearance by Bathilde at the original ballet’s end is not uncommon. I can’t speak for incarnations elsewhere, but in the New York area it is – and seeking forgiveness from her and a reconciliation is a step beyond that.]
But even though I think it contradicts what Giselle the original stands for, the mea culpa works here because of the more sympathetic way that Bathilde is played, and because in this version Albrecht clearly never really loved Giselle – she was his conquest, not his love, and when she died because of what he did, his feeling was guilt and (maybe) remorse, not despair, and certainly not love.
I’ve spent far too much time here discussing the details of @giselle, but that’s because there’s a lot here worth discussing. But I haven’t yet mentioned the performances.
Soon after she joined ABT, it was evident that McBride had not just facility with classical choreography, which is (or should be) a given, but also a stage quality of accessibility and openness that made her performances particularly spirited and more engaging-looking than they might otherwise have been. That this stage persona carried over to @giselle is not surprising; that she executed the classical/ contemporary hybrid choreography so well is another matter entirely. She demonstrated here not only that she can handle a “standard” Giselle (which I suppose she’ll have to wait in line for), but anything that’s thrown at her, while adding a sense of spirit that permeates it all.
James is an unfamiliar stage presence to me, so I have no basis for comparing this with other performances. But here he delivered the personality, and the capability, to make his relatively cardboard character here credible, and with far more depth than I’d expected. More than that, James practically stopped the show with a set of Act II solo entrechats (an alternative to the Baryshnikov brises) that not only echoed the best I’ve seen (Bujones, Hallberg), but did them as required here – essentially inverting the power display. Where most Albrechts I’ve seen who dance the entrechats alternative grow slowly weaker as they progress, requiring added arm-propelled upward force to keep them going, here James starts the entrechats slowly, and as Myrtha, literally (and visually) commands him to take them higher and higher, he does – without any help from his arms. It was an amazing demonstration of strength and technique that left many in the audience gasping.
As Hilarion, Baca had less to do here than the character does in original incarnations, but he transmitted a strong stage presence based on his infatuation with Giselle that never crossed the line to being a nuisance or a boor (as in many original portrayals). And his technical growth since I last saw him dance (a long time ago…) is now clearly at the higher level that was expected of him when he started his professional career with ABT. [Imagine ABT at one point having had both Bell and Baca in the company. Though his departure from ABT was Philadelphia Ballet’s gain, for New York balletgoers it was a serious loss.]
The other lead characters left vivid impressions as well. Bathilde requires more character depth here than in original productions, and Fangqi Li delivered – and provided the requisite appearance and demeanor to match, including making the semi-final reconciliation with Albrecht scene believable. Beverly Bagg took a role that, in this version, would be easy to lose among everything else, and made it memorable. Yoko Kanomata, currently with Ballet Edmonton, portrayed Myrtha with both sufficient technical prowess and an abundant level of power that’s far more visible here than in the icy demeanor of Myrthas in original productions. And Chloe Bennett’s Moyna and Kira Radosevic’s Zulma – the former another dancer with Ballet Edmonton, the latter works out of Vancouver – added this version’s essential spice (and based on what she demonstrated here, Bennett could seduce a stone). [Although Beamish’s choreography, overall, replicates what I’ve previously summarized as his “style” (the movement is meaningful rather than idiosyncratic or quirky, and he doesn’t shy away from ballet lyricism), the pervasive hip-thrusts supposedly indicative of seduction (one instance of which is reflected in one of the attached photos) are superfluous exaggerations]. And the Wilis – Alesandra, Talia Langtry, Bridget Lee, Rianna Logan, Bailey Madill, and Nyah Wong Penner – all freelance dancers working in and around the Vancouver area, did fine work as well.
Finally, and by no means least, Beamish’s technical associates merit individual mention and acclaim: their contributions made @giselle work as well as it does. They are Brianna Amore (Projection Designer/ Animator), Abigail Hoke-Bady (Lighting Designer), and former New York City Ballet Principal Janie Taylor (Costume Design).
It’s unusual for a revision to a classic ballet to invite so much to comment (and, trust me, I had more), but I suspect I’ve only cracked the surface of what Beamish and his associates have embedded within this production. Clearly, it deserves more than a two-night run. I hope it returns – maybe to the same space, which appears ideal for it. Be that as it may, and regardless of the concerns I’ve expressed, @giselle is one of the finest productions to appear in New York in 2023.